Dean Johnson, middle, with farm workers at the Johnson Farms cooling pad | Jane Boursaw Photo
Dean Johnson, middle, with farm workers at the Johnson Farms cooling pad | Jane Boursaw Photo

If you’ve been in the area for a while, you probably remember “Farm and Orchard Time,” the long-running radio show on WTCM hosted by Merlin Dumbrille. Merlin passed away in 2014, and Farm and Orchard Time has since faded into the sunset. So while no one can ever replace Merlin or that show, we decided to bring it back here on Old Mission Gazette, and take a look at what the Old Mission Peninsula farmers are doing on any given week. Read on…

Earlier this week, I talked with my brothers, Dean Johnson and Ward Johnson, who own and run Johnson Farms, our family’s Old Mission Peninsula farm that’s been in the family since the 1800s, about what’s happening on the farm this week. They each have their own farms, and they also do a lot of contract farming for other farmers on the Peninsula.

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There is still a lot of farmland on the Old Mission Peninsula, but there are fewer farmers managing those lands. Back in the old days, most people farmed their own land. These days, with the expensive equipment involved in farming, a highly regulated work force requiring reams of paperwork, and strict compliance rules about the land itself (state and federal environmental and agricultural laws), you can see why someone with ten or 20 acres of farmland would rather turn it over to someone whose business is farming.

The Wunsches, for example, farm about a thousand acres on the Old Mission Peninsula, with the Johnsons not far behind. And because the farms are so strictly regulated these days, that’s one reason why only specific people are allowed in the orchards and why a non-motorized trail like TART could never be built through OMP farmland.

I’ll write more about all of that in upcoming Farm and Orchard Time stories, because there’s a lot to say about rules and regulations, current Old Mission Peninsula farming trends and more. The Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, organized by my dad, Walter Johnson, and other OMPers, has played a huge role in farmers being able to keep their farmland on the OMP. In fact, Dad was the first farmer to put his land into the program years ago, to ensure that farming would continue on the OMP (he passed away in 2004, so thanks, Dad – so far so good).

As for my family’s farm, the “home farm” – where it all began in the 1800s (read more about that here and here) – is located on Center Road about a half-mile north of Mapleton. If you’re heading north, you’ll see the farm’s cooling pad on the right, and beyond that, the big red barn on the crest of the hill (it was originally called “Crescent Hill Fruit Farms”).

As a kid, I spent many happy hours in that barn, making hay forts, taking care of my horse Copper, and, yes, doing actual work. Not only did all of us kids work on the farm, many of our friends did, too.

I asked Dean and Ward what’s on the farm schedule right now, and they said they’re busy pruning, fertilizing and planting (and I heard my first sprayer this morning). Dean said they have about 10,000 trees ordered. About 9,000 of those are Honeycrisp apples and the rest are cherry varieties like Ulster, Benton and Black Pearl.

Here are a couple of photos of Ward fertilizing his orchard on Center Road just north of the barn. If you look closely, you can see the tiny white specks of fertilizer being flung into the dirt around the trees.

Ward Johnson fertilizing one of his orchards on Center Road | Jane Boursaw Photo
Ward Johnson fertilizing one of his orchards on Center Road | Jane Boursaw Photo
Ward Johnson fertilizing one of his orchards on Center Road | Jane Boursaw Photo
Ward Johnson fertilizing one of his orchards on Center Road | Jane Boursaw Photo

The fertilizer is housed at the Johnson Farms cooling pad just north of Mapleton, where it’s loaded into the fertilizer spreader and hauled behind a tractor in the orchard.

Bins of Fertilizer on Johnson Farms Cooling Pad | Jane Boursaw Photo
Bins of Fertilizer on Johnson Farms Cooling Pad | Jane Boursaw Photo
Johnson Farms workers with a bin of fertilizer on the cooling pad | Jane Boursaw Photo
Johnson Farms workers with a bin of fertilizer on the cooling pad | Jane Boursaw Photo
Johnson Farms workers with a bin of fertilizer on the cooling pad | Jane Boursaw Photo
Johnson Farms workers with a bin of fertilizer on the cooling pad | Jane Boursaw Photo

The bee hives will be coming at the end of April or first part of May, to ensure that pollination takes place. We used to keep our own bees on the farm (I was the beekeeper for a while), but now most of the farmers use a bee service to pollinate their crops.

This is also a good time to remind OMP drivers to watch for tractors and farm equipment moving along the roads. Give them plenty of space, and don’t forget that we are a Right to Farm community. More on that forthcoming.

And while it’s still too early to tell how the orchard crops are doing, I watched Ward cut into a group of tiny cherry buds. One of the buds was green (signalling that it’s ok), while another bud was brown (not ok – dead, possibly frozen). With the unseasonably warm weather this Spring and blossoms just around the corner, now is the time when colder temperatures could be a real issue for farmers.

Ward Johnson cuts into a cherry bud | Jane Boursaw Photo
Ward Johnson cuts into a cherry bud | Jane Boursaw Photo

Stay tuned for next week’s Farm and Orchard Time.

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